Routes from Florida to the Bahamas are as short as 50 miles, but they all involve crossing the Gulf Stream and hopefully arriving during daylight hours and early enough to clear Customs. For most sailors, this means an evening or night departure with an overnight sail, which is what we were doing when voyaging from Palm Beach to West End, Grand Bahama. Unfortunately, one of our steering cable ends broke off in the middle of the Stream, with a stiff wind blowing and a lumpy sea — in the pitch dark.
I had a sick feeling while hanging upside down below the steering box, peering at the loose cable end by the dim light of a flashlight. Then I noticed that the steering chain the cable was attached to had come off the sprocket of the wheel! Major surgery on our steering system would be required in order to be able to get going again. Luckily, our catamaran was able to sort of heave-to by going to a triple-reefed main and a rolled-up jib, holding us at a slight angle to the seas.
Our custom cat had an unusual steering box attached to the cabin bulkhead that required removal of the wheel, then backing out lots of screws, just to see what was going on. Needless to say, this would be a time-consuming job requiring plenty of light to see what I was doing. At first, I started out with a small flashlight held in my mouth, which is often useful for small jobs but not for long-term work. I tried various headlamps that slipped off my head as I hung upside down. In the end, the best technique was for my wife to hold a more powerful flashlight pointed at where I was working on the many difficult-to-remove screws.
After much struggle, everything was put back together only to discover that I had somehow crossed the cables when reattaching them to the steering sprocket chain! Turning the wheel right made the boat go to port. I tried steering the boat like that for a while but decided that it just wouldn’t work, so I had to take everything apart all over again. Once fixed, we almost made it to West End before one of my jury-rigged repairs broke again, necessitating an interesting entrance to the harbor, steering from the stern with lines leading to each rudder while my wife ran the throttle and shouted directions since I couldn’t see anything. But, at least the sun was up!
Let there be light
Unfortunately, tales like this one are a staple of many cruisers’ get-togethers, and a lot of these “adventures” seem to happen at o’dark-thirty. This is why emergency lights and onboard lighting are so critical on any boat. Having owned, lived aboard and cruised a wide variety of cruising sailboats for more than 40 years, I have a lot of unfortunate experience with both emergency repairs and emergency lighting. These episodes have taught me some basic truths.
First, quantity is more important than quality with flashlights. It is easy to spend a fortune on macho-looking, socalled “tactical” lights that have eye-piercing outputs, water resistance equivalent to a submarine and the ability to fight off pirates when needed. But if you drop one over the side or it dies in the midst of a repair, it does no good. Flashlights have so many uses that I reach for one multiple times each day. I prefer having three or more of the exact same light all stored together near my chart table where I can put my hand on them even in the pitch dark. If one is lost or dies for some reason, I reach for the next. If the batteries go on one, I reach for another.
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